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A Case in Print

My own experience with Open Source as a computer book author is a little different. While writing GNU C++ for Linux, I had the uneasy thought that I would be called on the carpet for selling a $50 book of "free software." Of course, publishers have been pulling this same trick for years with cover copy in a starburst that states something like "Free CD-ROM Included!" Since you still have to pay for the book to get the disk, isn't this just a marketing gimmick? Perhaps not. In years long past, prior to the Internet explosion, and before printing companies figured out how to package disks and CD-ROMs in book covers, I used to sell diskettes of the programs in my books. Later, when books started to include "free" disks, I realized it was time to change how I distributed electronic copies of the program listings in my books.

Scrapping my disk sale business, I reasoned, would not necessarily mean a loss of revenue. On the contrary, not following the trend to include a "free" disk in every book might soon put me out of business entirely. Readers faced with a decision of choosing between two books on the same subject, one with a disk and one without, would naturally take home the one with the extra goodies. As it turned out, after including the listings on disk inside the back cover, I began to sell more books than ever before.

Publishing tutorial listings, I realize, is not on the same level as publishing the source code to a freely distributed UNIX kernel such as Linux. But there is a connection, especially in the publishing of algorithmic implementations—a specific sorting subroutine, for example, that has some unique operational feature. These tidbits, which I try to include in my books, lend extra value to the text, and I have always believed that readers who have purchased the book, or checked it out from a library, should be free to use my code in any way they choose.

But now a new thought has begun to nag me, and I am today faced with another business decision raised directly by the Internet and the Open Source movement. The question is, should I, and other authors, publish books in full on the Internet? What would that do to book sales, and hence to an author's ability to earn a living? Frankly, I don't know the answers to those questions (neither do my publishers), but meanwhile, I have agreed to compromise in two ways:

But now a new thought has begun to nag me, and I am today faced with another business decision raised directly by the Internet and the Open Source movement. The question is, should I and other authors publish books in full on the Internet? What would that do to book sales, and hence to an author's ability to earn a living? Frankly, I don't know the answers to those questions (neither do my publishers), but meanwhile, I have agreed to compromise in two ways:

1. By making sample chapters from GNU C++ for Linux available online (which will be posted in the coming weeks). I'll look into doing the same for other books.

2. By making all source code listings freely available on my Web site, http://www.tomswan.com, along with updates and corrections. I also plan to add source code files from some of my out of print books.

I would like to hear from readers on the question of online book publishing. While I do not have any objection to publishing online material and making it freely available, my fear is that authors will be forced to evolve from writers to advertising agents. Must authors derive an income from yet another Web site full of advertising banners and affiliate-program icons? I'm interested in your thoughts on this question: Would you still buy a book if it were available online?

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